A Man's Soul and a Fish's Scale: Sex, Size and Spirit in Moby Dick
Part sea-faring yarn, part auto-biography, part natural biology, Melville's longest novel defies easy attempts to negotiate its content. Loved and hated almost from the first, Moby Dick has become, in latter centuries, most primarily considered from two perspectives: The Religious Quest and the Man's Quest (concerning masculinity and its discontents). In the following article, I suggest another way into this complicated narrative. Susan Stewart's theory of scale in On Longing (1993) provides a cross-sectional view of the traditional binaries in Moby Dick. Beginning not with gender, but with size, we may "understand the book," as Melville's comment to Hawthorne suggests, without attempting to narrow its wild scope. Gender boundaries are challenged in Moby Dick through an emphasis on the physical and the spiritual quest, but the novel draws upon both gender representations in an attempt to define the soul/self against the immense Unknown. Hebraic and pantheistic, male and female, contradictory and inclusive, the novel (much like its author) contains "divine magnanimities"—the soul of man on an enormous scale.
"Moby-Dick" is obviously a man's book, about a man obsessed with avenging his shattered manhood"
—David Leverenz, Manhood and the American Renaissance
"In me divine maganimities (sic) are spontaneous and instantaneous […] I felt pantheistic then—your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s. A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb."
—Herman Melville, Letter to Hawthorne, November 1851
Part sea-faring yarn, part autobiography, part natural biology, Melville's longest novel defies easy attempts to negotiate its content. "We are at a loss," say early critics, "to determine in what category of works of amusement to place it," (Britannia 1851) and the London Leader (1851) calls it "a strange, wild, weird book, full of poetry and interest."1 The narrator, Ishmael, gives us not only (or even
primarily) the story of a young man gone to sea on a whale boat. The revenge quest of the ship's captain, Ahab pulls the text forward and drags along the rest in its disastrous wake, and yet the ultimate destruction of the ship and nearly all the crew does not knot up the various narrative threads nor does it provide answers or closure. From its earliest reception, it has garnered multiple interpretations: an adventure; a parable for "religious hypocrisies"; a tale of the "human heart" or one full of "spiritual personages" (News of the World, 1851; Britannia, 1851; Duyckink, 1851). Yet, is it also a cautionary tale against monomania, a prose narrative in defense of whaling, and a spiritual (as well as a vengeful) quest.
Loved and hated almost from the first, Moby Dick has become, in latter years, most primarily considered from two perspectives: The Religious Quest and the Man's Quest (concerning masculinity and its discontents). In 1951, Lawrence Thompson published Melville's Quarrel with God, followed by William Braswell's (1959) Melville and his Religious Thoughts and Melville's Use of the Bible (1969). In 1974, Carl G. Vaught publishes "Religion as Quest for Wholeness: Melville's Moby Dick," and as late as the 1990s comparative works like Elisa New's "Bible Leaves! Bible Leaves! Hellenism and Hebraism in Melville's Moby Dick" were still attempting to situate the narrative in terms of its religious or counter-religious sentiment. The second perspective, that of Man's Quest, gained critical momentum in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Julian C. Rice's (1978) "Male Sexuality in Moby-Dick" explores sex, love, death and the loss of gender, and Wilma Garcia's (1984) Mothers and Others consider the absence of the female but the presence of the feminine in retellings of the heroic masculine quest.
David Leverenz' (1989) Manhood and the American Renaissance also considers these masculine and feminine binaries, though—as quoted above—he views Moby-Dick as "obviously a man's book, about a man obsessed with avenging his shattered manhood" (p. 126). This exploration considers what it meant for authors like Melville to be "manly," but the ideology assessed is not a religious or spiritual one (but rather one of humiliation and fear). Both perspectives offer nuanced interpretations of this vast text and its at times incomprehensible plot lines, but as one critic from the early nineties rightly complained—it seems that rarely the twain shall meet (Taylor, 1992).
There have been recent, useful additions to Melville scholarship apart from these binaries; Mark Lloyd Taylor's (1992) work considers Moby Dick a "theological and sexual-political text," while Daniel Hannah's (2011) "Felicia Hemans, Herman Melville, and the Queer Atlantic" attempts to "map out" the "means by which discourses of transnationalism, gender and sexuality engage in 'overlapping, mutually determining, and convergent fields of politicization'" (pp. 61-62). Queer theory certainly offers one method for understanding the "non-normative narratives of gender and desire" in texts such as these, challenging "forms of belonging" (2011, p. 62). However, the "quest"—be it religious, political or otherwise—must also engage with Melville's seeming contempt for the sentimental, the domestic and the feminine as lesser in scope and purpose than the manly, homo-social world the novel inhabits (a point also made by Leverenz and part of the complicated understand of nineteenth-century American manhood). In the following article, I suggest another way into this complicated narrative. Rather than read the spiritual quest as split between the masculine Ahab and the more feminine Ishmael or as a [page 96] split between monotheistic and masculine Hebraism and the Greek/Christian polyglot "subordination of history," my examination will be driven by a sense of proportion. Susan Stewart's (1993) theory of scale in On Longing provides a cross-sectional view of the traditional binaries in Moby Dick. Beginning not with gender, but with size, we may "understand the book," as Melville's comment to Hawthorne suggests, without attempting to narrow its wild scope.2 Gender boundaries are challenged in Moby Dick through an emphasis on the physical and the spiritual quest, but the novel draws upon both gender representations in an attempt to define the soul/self against the immense Unknown. Hebraic and pantheistic, male and female, contradictory and inclusive, the novel (much like its author) contains "divine magnanimities"—the "soul" of man mapped onto an enormous shifting landscape of water and sky.
The Defining Power of Size
Susan Stewart focuses on what she calls "narratives of the miniature, the gigantic, the souvenir, the collection." Her work addresses questions of scale, of how size relates the reader (or viewer) to reality. In her section on the miniature, she explains that metaphors of the miniature are "metaphors of containment, of exteriority and interiority, of surface and depth, of covering and exposure, of taking apart and putting together" (1993, p. 37). The miniaturization of a thing creates an illusion of possible containment; the book, therefore, is itself a miniature in that it "encapsulates the details of everyday life, fitting life inside the body rather than the body inside the expansive temporality of life" (Stewart, 1993, p. 40). In Stewart's (1993) estimation, even great tomes like the Bible, "as the book of greatest significance […] holding the world both past and future" is a miniature and—in this period especially—a text often chosen for miniaturization in the pocket edition (p. 40). There is power in this ability to shrink the world this way, and a sense of safety as well. However, in the process, the miniature cuts off lived experience, offering "a world clearly limited in space but frozen" (Stewart, 1993, p. 48).
Though a replica of nature, the miniature is unnatural. All things minutely scaled have been produced by culture and "manipulate" the "physical world" of real space (Stewart, 1993, p. 55). In this manner, the miniature world becomes "overcoded" as cultural, as domesticated space (Stewart, 1993, p.74). The miniature may represent culture (a slippery term), but it is also coded as feminine: the cultivation of the miniature is the cultivation of the parlor, where the curio cabinets of middle and upper class Europeans displayed a domestic interior of tiny objects—even miniature furniture. Even sale catalogs represented these items as the "petite feminine," such that the nineteenth century reader would have easily connected these doll-house miniatures to a kind of refinement naturally suited to the environs of the hearth and home (Stewart, 1993, p. 62). Stewart suggests that, in these representations, there is a correlation not only between small size and the feminine, but also between size and privacy. The miniature is for the "inside"—the private space, juxtaposed against the outside, public space of the wider social milieu. It is, however, the juxtaposition that makes comparison possible. The miniature domestic becomes by inference female, largely by being contrasted with the wider scope of action and influence outside—the man's world, the public space.3 [page 97]
And yet, though the narrator Ishmael and the crew of the Pequod are engaged in man's business—a quest—they are, themselves, but miniatures in the enormity of the natural world. These Isolatos, encased in a floating island contained by the vast southern oceans, become the representation of private, domestic space, a concept reinforced by the clockwork-like nature of their small vessel. By contrast, the boundless sea and the white whale (who is impossible, Ishmael tells us, to accurately size beneath the waves) are representations of the gigantic and immeasurable. The whale Moby Dick is the complicated site of Ahab's monomania, but he is also representative of an intangible quality of superior (and perhaps malicious) vastness. Ishmael makes reference to the Old Testament passage from Job wherein the gigantic looks upon the miniature in derision (a quote that is also used by Stewart in her analysis):
The irony is that, in a sense, the crew of the Pequod are attempting to leash the whale; their harpoons essentially bind the animal to their miniature boats which are pulled along behind. Their success with lesser whales in the early sections of the book are overturned by the evasive Moby Dick, but this strangely comic image of "walking" the whale helps to exemplify what Stewart calls "the absolute inversion" of the miniature. If the miniature represents "closure, interiority, the domestic, and the overly cultural," then the gigantic represents "infinity, exteriority, the public, and the overly natural" (Stewart, 1993, p. 70). A thing of great size may be "public" because it is too large to be "private" or hidden, and Stewart's placement of it in opposition to "domestic" reminds us of the cultural division between public and domesticated life of the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, Stewart's reluctance to gender the public and domestic space creates a flexible framework for discussing the divisions in Melville.
While Ishmael longs to leave the shore and disparages the feminine parlor in favor of the dangerous sea-quest, the reality of the whaling vessel often mimics the domestic space. Traditional gender stereotypes criss-cross; the gigantic is public and powerful (by inference masculine), and yet the "gigantic" is also a force that "unleashes a vast and 'natural' creativity that bears within it the capacity for (self-) destruction"—untamable, unknowable, mystifying, spiritual (Stewart, 1993, p.73). These qualities had been, in the pedagogical as well as the medical rhetoric of earlier centuries, coded as feminine. It was the woman who was "overly natural" and in need of the espalier horticulture that habit-based education provided. John Locke's use of horticultural rhetorical tropes makes this plain: "one by one you may weed [faults] out all, and plant what Habits you please" (Locke, 1695, p. 78). An earlier writer, Francois Fénelon, warns that while a "learned" woman is "ridiculous"—an untrained or "natural" one is dangerous (Fénelon, 1707, pp. 3-4). Likewise, the mysterious nature of the female bodily economy was thought to be untamable (if [page 98] not unknowable), a mystifying cycle of menstruation and birth both spiritualized and demonized—but which was conceived of by male medical practitioners as indicative of diseased, inferior and/or destructive potentialities. What we encounter through the dynamics of scale is more complex than mere gender duality: the gigantic is both public and powerful, while being untamable and destructive. The "cultured" and domestic miniature delineated female (the nineteenth-century angel of the house, protecting culture from the threat of mass capitalism) may also represent order, law and the means of production. The relationship between scale and gender here helps to blur traditional representations; the masculine and the feminine exist in tension within the gigantic (spiritualized as either God or Nature or both) and the miniature (as culture, society, civilization, mankind).
Let us return to the complex plot of Moby Dick. Ishmael desires to leave the domestic and cultured space of land where the "far-away domestic memories" of domesticity threaten to bend "the welded iron" of a man's soul (Melville, 1993, p. 95). But even as the text denigrates contact with the cultured, socialized, domestic and feminine, it celebrates Starbuck (the most domesticated of the whalemen) as "practical" and "useful," a far more stable character than the fierce Ahab who, more than any of the crew, resembles a man who is not housebroken. Even Ishmael's desire to leave the shore of humanity is problematized by his relationship with a shipmate; Linda Cahir, author of (1999) Solitude and Society in the Works of Herman Melville and Edith Wharton, calls this the tension of the "social isolato" where "Ishmael's fundamental solitude" coincides with his "propensity to interact with people" (p. 88). This internal schism drives him to consummate a kind of marriage with the pagan Queequeg, embracing the most domesticating institutions of all:
Already, we begin to understand the problematic relationship between the male world of whaling and the domesticated shore. Our "unsocial" Ishmael, who longs to knock people's hats off and follow funerals in the first pages, unites himself almost immediately with another human being in a gesture of domesticity and—since Queequeg is arguably the most dominant—of subservience. Melville seems to be leading us on a daring masculine and spiritual quest, yet without entirely leaving the harbor (and in fact, these relations are sorted before they set sail).
An effort to locate Ishmael or Queequeg on a continuum of masculinity may be a frustrating exercise; the narrator's dislike of cultured spaces is ever at odds with his natural inclination to sociability. The whaling ship is an answer to this tension. The ship, emblematic of the masculine quest and freedom from the constraints of land, is also a miniature—with its carpenter, blacksmith, and cook, its hierarchy of order and authority, its sense of ritual, the Pequod represents not an escape from continent and culture, but a tiny reproduction of it. These sailors in their multi-functional capacities are "singularly efficient in those thousand nameless mechanical emergencies continually recurring in a large ship, upon a three or four years' voyage, [page 99] in uncivilized and far-distant seas" (Melville, 1993, p. 391). We ought to sense the irony in Melville's use of "uncivilized"; the sea is only uncivilized before man arrives upon it. The Pequod's ability to perform the duties at sea that are performed on land (by greater numbers of people) is a civilizing agent. What is more, the whale ship is a representation of democracy, of freedom, and of America. When Ishmael sings the praises of the profession, he does so by expounding upon its democratizing influence:
It was the whaleman who first broke through the jealous policy of the Spanish crown, touching those colonies; and, if space permitted, it might be distinctly shown how from those whalemen at last eventuated the liberation of Peru, Chili, and Bolivia from the yoke of Old Spain, and the establishment of the eternal democracy in those parts. (Melville, 1993, p. 91)
The "business of whaling" has "begotten events so remarkable in themselves, and so continually momentous in their sequential issues, that whaling may well be regarded as that Egyptian mother, who bore offspring themselves pregnant from her womb" (Melville, 1993, p. 91), as though democracies spring up in the wake of the whale ship fully formed. Regardless of the unlikelihood of these claims, they clearly align America, as a colonizing and civilizing agent, with the whale ship. This little nation, then, is an islandic version of Ishmael's mainland home, with all the glory and all the problems, all the domesticity and all the questing American desire Melville could supply it with. The Isolato needn't feel divided between sea and shore; his status as miniature allows him to bring the shore aboard.
Quest and Quarry in the Search for Self
Despite the joined gender inflections of an island-ship and its "married" crewmen, a paradox of scale emerges as the plot sharpens to a focus on the white whale. Though the quest is a search of the gigantic, infinite exterior, the characters move gradually into smaller and smaller spaces (from mainland to island, from island to ship, from ship to whale boat, from whaleboat to Queequeg's "floating coffin"). But is this tension a representation of Melville's fear of losing masculinity in a world growing more cultured and therefore more feminine (a point made by Leverenz and others)? It is true that gender exists in tension in this novel, and seems to be part of every climactic moment in the text: why the quest for the white whale strikes both admiration and loathing in Ishmael; why we are meant to see it as both an all-consuming quest for meaning and a representation of what is infinitely lacking the closure that meaning provides; why the ending has Ahab embraced by the infinite void while Ishmael is scooped up again by a domesticating entity (the bereft ship Rachel, searching for "her children"). And yet, as Stewart explains, "aesthetic size cannot be divorced from social function and social values" (1993, p. 95); or—more to the point—one can't leave the miniscule (domesticity, private, feminine) behind in the search for the gigantic (natural, public, masculine).
The self can only be identified in contrast, and so the social function of scale is to place the individual in space, just as the social function of gender is to differentiate him. Ishmael's quest for the white whale is also a quest for self, and his status as "orphan" is part of the process of defining him against the mooring terms [page 100] of acculturation. The existence of masculine and feminine within each character—and the competing representations of gigantic and miniature in the text—reveal an inability to fix the individual self permanently "adrift." Though the Pequod is life miniaturized, it is nevertheless a dramatic exemplification of the American ideal as Melville envisioned it. Here is a masculine world; here is a spiritual quest; here is man pitted against the elements and ready to democratize and civilize the world beyond. However, the tale does not unfold in that valorized direction. The Pequod is not on a mission for democracy—in fact it is ruled by a "despot." It is also not part of the wide world that the American imagery connotes. Rather, the ship is a clockwork, mechanized world of severe boundaries—a "frozen" world of "order, proportion, and balance" (Stewart, 1993, p. 68). The men act as one man and slowly lose their individualized Isolato identity until, near the end, "like machines, they dumbly moved about the deck" (Melville, 1993, p. 445).
A further example of this mechanism may be seen in the Try-Works chapter. The Try-Works consist of great clay pots in a furnace for refining the whale oil; during the curing process, the Try-Works leaps to life, the "bowels of the ship are thrown open," and the tackling is pulled from secreted spaces (Melville, 1993, p. 359). Yet, in the space of a few days, all is tucked away again; "all the numerous implements which have been in use are likewise cleansed and put away" and the crew "shift themselves from top to toe" and appear on deck "fresh and all aglow, as bridegrooms new-leaped from the daintiest Holland" (p. 360). Like a toy, or perhaps like one of the miniatures so popular at the time, the Pequod is unfolded and then put away again, with every piece of the works having its specialized and compartmentalized place. Mechanical devices are problematically gendered; it is the woman who is portrayed as the "meer machine" [sic] in the seventeenth century, and her womb described as hydraulic and machine-like.4 The cleansing and primping, too, has gendered connotations, and the reference to glowing bridegrooms is similarly appropriate to the miniaturized world, being again reflective of the domestic institution of marriage (much like the relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael).
The ship, its crew, and Ahab's quest, though stand-ins for America itself, exist in a small, privatized, and sometimes feminized spaces. Theirs is the world of the miniature. Conversely and perhaps ironically, the object of the quest and the medium in which it swims represent the gigantic and even mythic world. Moby-Dick and the ocean are representations of vast and ungraspable space. The ocean's gigantic proportions are the primary source of its awe-inspiring greatness. As the ship represents the "inside" domestic space, the ocean is the encompassing "outside;" it touches the ship on all sides and is the natural inverse of the island, the watery plain upon which it floats. If we return for a moment to Melville's suggestion that each Isolato represents a continent or island, then the ocean becomes his inverse as well. The whaleman seems an insignificance compared to the ocean's "unshored harborless immensities," just as "the comprehensible terrors of man" are nothing compared to "the interlinked terrors and wonders of God!" (Melville, 1993, p. 109, 90). The chapter of Moby Dick that perhaps best represents this relationship is The Castaway, where "Out from the center of the sea, poor Pip turned his crisp, curling, black head to the sun, another lonely castaway, though the loftiest and the brightest" (p. 349). It is not the water, nor the swimming, nor even the fear [page 101] of drowning that is unsupportable. It is "the awful lonesomeness" and "the intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity" (Melville, 1993, p. 349). The problem is scale.
Against the gigantic and infinite, the private self is out of its depth. The giant, in Stewart's (1993) terms, is "the ultimate assault upon the domesticity and the privatizing functions of the cultural" (p. 73). The ocean that surrounds Pip is a "world of disorder and disproportion" (Stewart, 1993, p. 74). Pip has no shore to base his size upon, and his mind is overrun because the "ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably" (Melville, 1993, p. 350). When he is picked up again, he is not the same. His malady is called madness by the crew, but Ishmael/Melville gives a different account, explaining that the sea "carried [his soul] down alive to the wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes" (Melville, 1993, p. 350). More powerful yet, Pip sees
Immeasuranble, immense, ungraspable and unknown—that which Melville has described as darkly spiritual, Hindu, (and feminine)—has the power to overthrow the senses of the miniature Isolato. And yet, Pip has also become, himself, "indifferent as his God." The intrusion of the vast Exterior of nature into the Interior of the self is a collision as damaging as it is enlightening, and the gigantic's propensity for "(self)destructions" becomes realized in our inability to assimilate its vastness. In America's western tradition, the ideal of masculinity does not rest in the wilderness but in the containment of wilderness, in the civilizing and domesticating and controlling of those things outside the self. In Melville, this nature remains untamable and unconquerable. In this sense, Melville's presentation of heroes-as-victims with "passive eyes," paralyzed and even feminized by the thing they seek is a recognition that masculinity and femininity are never divorced, even in the most "masculine" of genres: the adventure tale. Representations overlap and collide, but nowhere more violently than in Moby Dick's three-day hunt for the White Whale.
Though the narrative prepares us for and continually hints at the White Whale as the crisis and focus, the narrative of chase and destruction comes late in the novel. Melville lists the Sperm whale as "without doubt, the largest inhabitant of the globe; the most formidable of all whales to encounter; the most majestic in aspect" (p. 112), but his immensity is compressed into very few chapters. It is as though a whale larger, older and fiercer than all the rest of his breed must be forcibly contained, for, unlike the ocean's vastness, there is more to this giant than size. Moby-Dick is white, and for reasons Ishmael goes at length to describe, the whiteness is the root of his malicious horror: [page 102]
it was not so much this uncommon bulk that so much distinguished him from other sperm whales, but […]—a peculiar snow-white wrinkled forehead, and a high, pyrimidical white hump. […] It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me. (Melville, 1993, pp. 153, 157)
This recalls The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) by Edgar Allen Poe, in which whiteness is taboo, and where the protagonists Pym and Peters disappear into a cataract of "milky depths" under a "white ashy shower," threatened by a strange, huge and horrifying figure "the perfect whiteness of snow" (Chapter 25, n/p). Color, in this instance, is related both to scale and to the quest for the unknown, that desire for union with the "clear spirit of clear fire" of Melville's Candles chapter—the "great principal of light" which colors all things while remaining without color itself (Melville, 1993, p. 165).
Ishmael explains: "Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths" (Melville, 1993, p. 164). The very whiteness is a kind of immensity, and it casts doubt and fear (and the threat of annihilation) because in its "colorless all-color" there would cease to be boundaries and bases for comparison. It is for these reasons that the miniaturized, domesticated Isolato "shrinks" from it (Melville, 1993, p. 164). Contained size allows the viewer to measure himself, to define himself against another, outside object. Gender difference provides similar contrast—the adventurer can, by his very quest, demonstrate what he is not and increase his understanding of self. The white whale, with his gigantic size and gigantic symbolism, represents that open, shoreless (feminized) Beyond that both attracts and repels Ishmael. It attracts as the "ungraspable phantom of life," that unreachable self that Narcissus drowns in, and it repels because it is the "heartless void," threatening the seeker with annihilation (Melville, 1993, pp. 3, 164).
The problem facing Ishmael is therefore a problem of defining (and seeking) the self, and the confusion of gender representations is only a facet (albeit an important one) of this greater dilemma. That great masculine quest cannot be completed without the obliteration of the self, and the self retreats from this conclusion again and again, back to the safe folds of the miniaturized and domesticated world. In effect, the one who refuses the domestic altogether and completes the quest for the gigantic—Ahab—is the one who is utterly and voicelessly destroyed by it. The one who, though enamored of the quest and the gigantic, it too appalled by it to finally complete it—Ishmael—survives to be picked up by another "floating island," the Rachel.
For a story that sprawls about in so many directions, Moby Dick has a very succinct ending in the Epilogue. The reader has only just witnessed the sinking of the whale-struck Pequod which, "like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven with her"—the sea bird pinioned to the mast by Tashtego's hammer. After this symbolic surrender, we are reminded once more of the gigantic and timeless void of nature: "the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago" (Melville, 1993, p. 478). Then, in the Epilogue, we are [page 103] given the rest of Ishmael's story, because "one did survive the wreck" (Melville, 1993, p. 478). Ishmael appends to the tragic quest his own uncanny survival.
He is sucked towards the vortex—much in the way he has been sucked into Ahab's quest—but because he arrives at the center so long after the Pequod's sinking, it has subsisted to a "creamy pool" (Melville, 1993, p. 478). He is not brought down, he tells us, because he was tossed from the smaller whaleboat. Yet, in the chapter before, we are told that he was tossed because he was "unprepared," and that though the others climbed aboard again, he did not. Therefore, Ishmael is saved from the vortex because he did not—either for lack of opportunity or lack of desire—climb back into Ahab's boat. He is removed from the quest for the gigantic unknown (now spiritualized as Satanic) and, thus liberated, is given a chance to rejoin society, which returns us (like Ishmael's opening line) to literary allusions to the Old Testament and yet another miniature: the whale-ship. There are three parts to this redemption in the text; the first is the coffin life-buoy, the second is the miraculous benignity of nature, and the third is the return of the Rachel.
The coffin life-buoy is a strange symbol. The markings upon its surface are the same as the tattoo on Queequeg's back (a riddle which is supposed to solve the world's problems but which, comically, even Queequeg cannot decipher). The coffin was meant for Queequeg before his recovery from fever. However, as his exterior tattoo has been inscribed onto its surface, the coffin is Queequeg. As the cannibal saves two others from drowning, a greenhorn off the coast of Nantucket and Tashtego, it is only fitting that his narrative representation saves Ishmael. This rescue is significant for another reason, however. The fact that his connection to the coffin is what "buoys" Ishmael up is representative of Ishmael's "marriage" to Queequeg, the symbolic act that buoyed Ishmael's lonely spirits in the early chapters. The union—again, part of the domesticated and feminine world—allows Ishmael to stay afloat until he is rescued in actuality.
The second stage of Ishmael's re-entrance into the miniature world is the "reduction" of nature. What makes nature terrifying—exhibited in the expanse of the ocean and in the whiteness of the whale—is its lack of boundaries and its ability to annihilate. While Ishmael lies floating on the coffin, the sharks "glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths" and the sea-hawks "sailed with sheathed beaks" (Melville, 1993, p. 479). Though still on the wide expanse of sea, the threat of annihilation is gone; he floats on a "soft and dirge-like main" (p. 479) and the normally fierce terrors of the ocean seem like the "blessed" serpents of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. Nature's force and power have been displaced, and "on the second day, a sail drew near" (p. 479).
The final stage of Ishmael's return to the social and cultural is his rescue by the ship called the Rachel. This rescue is important as a symbol as well as a fact; Rachel has lost crewmen—the sons of the captain—and is described as a grieving mother. By being rescued by this ship and not, say, by the Bachelor (another ship described in the text), Ishmael's return to the social is also a return to the domestic and female. When he is finally "saved" it is by "the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan" (Melville, 1993, p. 479). The orphan image has returned, the Isolato has moved into the smallest and most unsocial space, a motherless child on a floating coffin. His return to that miniature world as represented by the ship is a re-identification with [page 104] the maternal bond, and finally a return to the domestic, private, feminized, and "safe" harbor from which he tells his tale. It is not "simply" Christian or Hebraic allegory, and though the Pequod is aligned with Satan in the end, we must remember that Satan (at least the Satan of Paradise Lost) is also a tragic hero. Ishmael's reliance on the mystery of Queequeg's tattooed coffin does not allow for a "mere" allegory—the tale never allows for a "mere" anything. But in one thing we are assured: Ishmael's spiritual quest returns him to shore, to civilization, to the small and to the known. And, in so doing, it returns him to himself.
For a "miniature" gigantic book, Moby Dick emulates the fluid and all-encompassing, refusing to finally make an identifiably concrete end. It is not only a tale about men avenging their masculinity. Rather, it is a tale that connects the miniature world to the gigantic one, while still remaining partly on the shore—after all, the tale is given to us as past, retold from the mainland. The ending of the tale, with its split heroes and two alternatives to the quest for the gigantic, represents Melville's understanding that a dialectic resolved would be a kind of self-erasure. Without the miniature, the gigantic cannot be fully realized. In Stewart's analysis, "in approaching the miniature, our bodies erupt into a confusion of before unrealized surfaces" (Stewart, 1993, p. 71). Similarly, without the gigantic, the miniature loses all sense of scale. The dialectic of size rather than that of gender is what makes it a mystery, but it is also the key to its own deciphering: "these discourses of the self and the world mutually define and delimit one another" (Stewart, 1993, p. xii). Melville valorized the masculine world, but he understood that the "feminine" society that surrounded him and that was making up America as a bourgeoning world power needed to be placed within it. One naturally derives half its meaning—the darkly spiritual Hindu half—from the other.
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- 1. These and all other references to criticism (mostly anonymous) are collected in Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford (2002).
- 2. Melville himself worried (in "The Advocate") that the text would be deemed some "hideous and intolerable allegory" (New, 1998, p. 283).
- 3. This debate had been ongoing in the seventeenth century, evidenced by writers like Mary Astell. Men, in preparing for larger latters of state, were educated because it was "customary"; women, whose sphere of influence was contracted, were trained to behave by good habits (also called customs). In educational treatises of the time, the shifting emphasis depended on whether the pupil was preparing for an "inside" private life or an "outside" public and social one (see Astell, 1694).
- 4. Astell (1694, p. 25). Similarly, male-midwife William Smellie was the first to consider the female economy as "mechanical" bodies in motion, 1743.